Attention has understandably focussed on Davis and Johnson but disruption lower down the system is causing problemsby Gavin Freeguard / July 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
Michael Fallon falling “below the high standards” of behaviour expected. Priti Patel’s plane home. Damian Green’s ministerial code maelstrom. Amber Rudd’s Windrush nightmare. David Davis and Boris Johnson’s Brexit double exit—the first resignation of two cabinet ministers inside 24 hours since 1982.
All told, we are witnessing the highest rate of cabinet resignations outside of reshuffles since the last 13 months of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
These will be the resignations that persist in people’s memories—big beasts in substantial scandals or ideological exits. Will people remember the junior ministerial resignations of recent weeks? Philip Lee, the junior justice minister who became the first to quit over Brexit; Greg Hands, who left the Department for International Trade over Heathrow; Steve Baker (Exiting the EU) and Guto Bebb (Defence), both over Brexit but from different sides of the divide; and Andrew Griffiths (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), though as the subject of a sordid Sunday newspaper splash, he stands a better chance of infamy. This is to say nothing of the various parliamentary private secretaries, less the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder than the ground immediately beneath it.
More than three-quarters of all ministerial posts are filled by people new to the job since the 2017 general election, just over a year ago, and the reshuffling has been greater at junior levels. But why should we care as much—or indeed, at all—about these junior ministers, the reshuffling of what one former MP referred to as Under-Secretaries of State for Paperclips and Statues? We should care because junior ministers matter, and this is where much government business gets done.
While Secretaries of State might crowd round the cabinet table, set their department’s direction and be its public face, junior ministers do much of the heavy lifting. In parliament, they are the ones to answer adjournment debates and parliamentary questions and pilot bills through to Royal Assent. In their departments, they are the ones who deal with correspondence, drive policies through and chase their progress and keep stakeholders on board. It may be “unglamorous” and “an awful lot of the routine stuff, the nuts and bolts,” as former minister Bob Neill put it, but they are the ones that get things done.
“More than three-quarters of all ministerial posts are filled by people new to the job since the 2017 general election”
Take Stephen Twigg, former minister for London schools, and the London Challenge, which improved school standards in the capital and spawned similar initiatives elsewhere. Or Steve Webb, pensions minister for the entirety of the Coalition Government, and the reforms achieved there, like auto-enrolment. Or Hugh Robertson on the Olympics, Lynne Featherstone on equal marriage or Jo Swinson on shared parental leave. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan says it “helps enormously, if you’ve got junior ministers who also know their brief” (although she was left to wonder “Do they know more than you?”).
Losing these ministers is disruptive: it takes time for their replacements to get to grips with a new department and a new policy domain. New ministers, even from the same party, bring new priorities and different styles that their departments will need to get used to.
In some departments, every minister has been appointed since the new year: the Ministry of Justice, dealing with a crisis in prisons and major reforms to the courts, and the Cabinet Office, a central coordinating department of government. Specific posts and specific policies have suffered: in July, Kit Malthouse became Theresa May’s fourth housing minister in her two years as prime minister, and the eighth in just over eight years since May 2010. If housing really is a priority, some ministerial stability would be more welcome than changing the departmental nameplates to include the word “Housing.”
It’s hardly surprising if the public doesn’t see the value of junior ministers. Prime ministers sometimes don’t, either. Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Tony Blair, said “the appointment of junior ministers is a mass production exercise.” Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary, felt they were treated as leftovers. Stories abound of mismatched ministers and briefs, and even of the wrong people being (almost) appointed to the wrong job.
Politics will always predominate. But government is about getting things done, not merely reacting or racking up record reshuffle or resignation numbers. Cabinet resignations might make the headlines, but we should all take the damage and disruption caused by reshuffling the junior ranks more seriously.